Huawei is going direct-to-consumer in the U.S. with its giant-screened and $299 unlocked device

Despite the fact that Huawei is the third-largest phone maker worldwide (behind Apple and Samsung), few people in the U.S. really have much of an idea that it even makes phones. Huawei is a name that has creeped into the public's minds over the past few years, with research (from Huawei itself) showing that 22 percent of Americans are now aware of the brand (whether or not they can pronounce it), up from a mere 9 percent in 2012. That comes with a relatively small push in marketing for consumer-facing Huawei products, as the company continues to spend the largest amount of advertising money in China and Europe where it already has a foothold in selling own-branded devices.

But that makes sense when you consider that until this point Huawei has mainly sold devices in the U.S. under other brand names as an ODM, only recently stepping into selling Huawei-branded devices in the lowest end, primarily on prepaid carriers. The company's plan is for that to change, with a distinct move towards making Huawei a powerful brand that can drive phone and tablet sales all on its own. The Ascend Mate 2 is the first device Huawei is giving an honest shot in the U.S. by selling it directly to consumers, jumpstarting what will undoubtedly be a long-term play in this market.

But in 2014 the Huawei brand isn't enough to sell a phone, leaving the Ascend Mate 2 to lean on features to get people looking. Going right down the list of what Huawei has found consumers want, they're all here — a large screen, LTE data, freedom of carrier choice, a solid camera, huge battery and exceptional price. The Ascend Mate 2 isn't going to blow your socks off, but it sure checks all of those boxes — read along and see if Huawei has a fighting chance selling an unlocked phone in the U.S. today.

A new way to buy Huawei devices

GetHuawei.com

If Huawei wants anyone in the U.S. to even consider picking up one of its new devices, the buying experience is going to have to be simple and accessible. Huawei's answer to this concern is a new website, www.gethuawei.com, that takes some of the guesswork out of buying devices without the help of your friendly (I use that term loosely) neighborhood wireless carrier.

A showroom, accessory store and support portal all in one.

GetHuawei is a showroom, store and support portal all in one, hopefully making it easier to buy devices like the Ascend Mate 2 and have them shipped right to you. The website will be able to sell you unlocked Huawei devices and accessories, provide product support and help you make your choice of carrier when finally buying a phone.

One of the biggest parts of GetHuawei is the support angle. Devices sold in the U.S. through the website will offer up to a two-year warranty, including U.S.-based customer support over the phone, and simple free return shipping if you have an issue with your device. Product and support forums will help build a community of Huawei device owners to ask questions and get answers from peers and experts alike. A U.S.-focused blog will keep customers in the loop of Huawei happenings as well.

Hardware and specs

Huawei Ascend Mate 2

Of the few things Huawei is known for, making basic smartphone and tablet hardware at an affordable price is a great example of what this company does best. The Ascend Mate 2 exemplifies this thought perfectly, with some of the most typical, simple and generic phone hardware available today. If you were asked to describe what a "smartphone" looked like, you'd come to the conclusion of this device — a big glass slab on the front simply accented with a logo, front-facing camera and speaker grille, surrounded by a faux-metal plastic trim around the sides and a lightly textured black plastic piece on the backside.

Typical, simple and well-made hardware for this price.

A camera, flash and second logo adorn the back, as does a single speaker on the bottom. Your ports and buttons are in the usual places — headphone on top, USB on th ebottom, power and volume keys together on the right side. Two microphones sit opposite each other on the top and bottom edges. That back plate is the removable and extremely flexible plastic type, revealing a metal-covered and non-removable 3900mAh battery, as well as slots for your SIM and Micro SDcard. It's a handsome phone overall, but it isn't going to get noticed for having striking design features.

For what it's worth, the Ascend Mate 2 is actually built surprisingly well considering its lackluster design. The seams meet up tightly around the entirety of the outer casing, there are no rattles or flexes to be had and it gives you a feeling in the hand that you normally wouldn't expect out of a $299 unlocked device.

Yes, the Ascend Mate 2 is just $299 unlocked and sold directly by Huawei. And although this isn't hitting OnePlus One levels of internal specs, it's actually quite well-equipped for anything an average smartphone user would want nowadays.

Category Features
OS Android 4.3 Jelly Bean
EmotionUI 2.0
Chipset Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 (MSM8928) @ 1.6 GHz
RAM 2GB
Display Size 6.1-inches
Display Resolution 720 x 1280, 240 ppi
Cameras 13MP f/2.0 rear
5MP wide angle front
Internal Storage 16GB
External Storage microSD, up to 32GB
Radios LTE / HSPA+ / GSM
T-Mobile and AT&T bands supported
Connectivity Wifi, GPS, Bluetooth 4.0
Dimensions 161mm × 84.7mm × 9.5mm
Weight 202g
Battery 3900mAh

The biggest things to note here are the Snapdragon 400 processor and distinct support for both AT&T and T-Mobile. Moving to Qualcomm's processor is a step away from the in-house HiSilicon chip that's found in many other Huawei devices, but based on our experience with the Ascend Mate 2 it's more than capable of handling what you can throw at it. Being a U.S.-focused device it also has radios that are specifically tuned to run on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks — and associated MVNOs — without issue.

Display and speaker quality

Huawei Ascend Mate 2

I'm of two minds when it comes to the Ascend Mate 2's display. Just on principle alone it appalls me that even a mid-range device would have a 6.1-inch display at just 720 x 1280 resolution (a mere 240 ppi) in the year 2014. At the same time, I really don't have anything really bad to say about the display quality in real-world use. Sure you can stick your face nice and close to the display and notice the pixelation around fonts and icons, but you're never putting such a behemoth of a phone that close to your eyes. In regular use I hardly noticed the display resolution, partly because the other attributes of the screen are solid — viewing angles, brightness and color were all up to par with this level of device, aside from a slight discoloration I noticed when holding the phone at extreme angles.

I'm inclined to scoff at the 240 ppi display, but in real use you hardly notice the low resolution.

Only going with 720p resolution also has the added benefit of improved performance, especially when considering the Ascend Mate 2 only has a Snapdragon 400 under the hood. The jump to 1080p (and beyond) adds even more overhead to every single task — be it scrolling through Facebook or playing Riptide GP2 — that could result in noticeable bogging down. And as we'll get to in the lower sections, performance on the Ascend Mate 2 is quite good.

On the speaker side of things, Huawei has tossed a nicely-sized single speaker on the back of the Ascend Mate 2, situated about an inch above the bottom of the device. The placement is such that it coincides with the curvature of the back plate to lift the grille just slightly off whatever flat surface the phone is sitting on, but placing the Ascend Mate 2 on a table still muffles the sound quite considerably. When you flip the phone over or lift it up the sound is acceptable, but nothing more — use some of that money you saved to invest in a good Bluetooth speaker or headphones for any serious listening needs.

Software experience

Huawei Ascend Mate 2

Huawei's software customization, dubbed EmotionUI 2.0, is relatively unchanged from the widespread unveiling of version 1.6 with last year's Ascend P6 aside from some new features made for this larger-screened device. To be clear this isn't the same EmotionUI 2.3 we see on the just-announced (and higher-end) Ascend P7, but the visual cues are nearly identical.

Huawei Ascend Mate 2 Software

The software design feels very last-generation and not up to today's sleek standards.

Building on a base of Android 4.3 — with upgrade plans for KitKat, naturally — Huawei has changed the look and feel of Android most notably throughout the settings and launcher, but not so much that you feel out of place when switching from another device. A blue, black, white and grey color scheme is spread across the entire interface, with a little transparency thrown in for good measure. The interface feels a bit "last generation" to me though, and doesn't feel as sophisticated as the offerings in stock Android or from HTC and Sony on their latest devices. And although the launcher can be changed, the stock launcher's lack of a dedicated app drawer (a possible shot for former iPhone users can be a tad startling to anyone in the U.S. who has used basically any other Android device.

Huawei includes a multi-window app mode called W.O.W (Windows On Windows) for use with the larger screen, as well as a one-handed mode to help shift over interface elements like the lockscreen and keyboard to one side for easier one-handed use. Unfortunately given the size of the device even shifting the keyboard over isn't the biggest help in the world — you're still juggling the same physically large device.

Cameras

Huawei Ascend Mate 2

Along the same lines as the external hardware, the Ascend Mate 2's camera is very basic and typical for this class of device. We're looking at a now-standard 13MP Sony camera sensor with f/2.0 aperture (sorry, no OIS) and a few little bells and whistles like scene modes, HDR, panorama and "Sound & Shot." Around the front there's a wide-angle 5MP camera with Hauwei's favorite features, Groufie (a panorama selfie) and Beauty (an automatic enhancement mode). On the video front it records just 1080p — the processor can't really handle 4K.

Solid photos even in automatic mode, but there are few bells and whistles available.

Photo quality is above average, actually, though we didn't notice a huge difference in quality between "Smart" and HDR modes aside from notably longer processing times on the latter. On average camera shots were good, and seemed to lean towards more of a natural look rather than an over-processed high-contrast one. The camera interface is dead simple and unchanged from other modern Huawei devices, with a few simple settings and self-explanatory buttons. Again following the general interface style it seems a bit dated to my eyes, but until Huawei wants to overhaul the entire interface they're likely stuck with this look.

Living with the Ascend Mate 2

Huawei Ascend Mate 2

With smartphone screen sizes creeping larger and larger, I often wonder if this progression towards giant phones will ever stop. With the announcement of several 6-inch and larger devices, including the Ascend Mate 2, this size category is clearly here to stay.

The phone is so large you'll never try to use it one-handed, which cuts down on frustration.

If there's one thing the phone has going for it, it's the fact that it's so large that you'd never consider trying to use it with one hand. You know you won't even be able to unlock it and swipe down the notification shade, so why bother taking out of your pocket unless you have two hands available? I used the Ascend Mate 2 more like my Nexus 7 than I did a phone, and once you give up the idea that it's a regular phone (it's not) you can get on with using it in its own way. The same was said about the Galaxy Note series along the years and was said about the Sony Z Ultra, and I think it holds up here as well.

Huawei claims that consumers really just want a huge screen on their phones for watching movies and TV or viewing pictures from social media apps. While I'm sure that's true, there comes a point where the phone no longer comfortably fits in your jeans — and that's where I'm at now trying to fit the Ascend Mate 2 into my (decidedly not skinny) pants pocket. If you have no need to fit this phone in your pocket then maybe all you care about is the large screen for watching movies, but in real-world use the trade-off of not being able to fit the phone in your pocket or use it with one hand is not worth it to me — and won't be for a good number of potential customers.

Battery life is great, performance is above average and the display won't bother $299 unlocked phone buyers.

Setting the size aside (by using both hands and lugging the phone across the table), performance and daily use of the Ascend Mate 2 was completely enjoyable. The internals are clearly up to par when it comes to moving Android 4.3 with light customization around on a 720p display, and whether the slightly stale interface is bothersome to you is really personal preference. The absolutely gigantic 3900mAh battery is plenty for upwards of two full days of use for even heavier users, and can even be used as a battery pack to charge other devices if you have the right cable. Yes, 720p at 6.1-inches is a tad bothersome to pixel snobs, but considering the price of this device we're not sure there's much overlap between that group and those who will consider buying an Ascend Mate 2.

Bottom line

Huawei Ascend Mate 2

The question still remains — is this the right device for Huawei to use as its refreshed entry into the U.S. market? It's hard to put my finger on any specific thing that Huawei did wrong with this U.S. release of the Ascend Mate 2, really. The phone is well made, has plenty of internal power for this price point and will be sold directly to consumers with the promise of support and carrier compatibility. Short of actually partnering with the big four carriers and launching this in stores, there's not much more you could ask for with a mid-range phone such as the Ascend Mate 2.

But there's a little bit of competition for a phone like this, and that makes the Ascend Mate 2 a bit harder to recommend. Outside of the fact that it's physically just too large for many to consider, devices like the OnePlus One match its $299 price, but offer drastically better hardware specs and a generally preferable software experience. The Nexus 5 and Moto X also get close on price, will actually fit in your pocket, and again offer better specs and user experiences.

This is a valiant first effort when it comes to heading direct-to-consumer in the U.S., but we're not so sure a device with such a niche size and lack of headline-worthy features is going to appeal to enough people to really make waves. We're glad to see another player putting price pressure on the unlocked phone market, but for now we'll have to wait and see how the GetHuawei store expands to even more devices in the future.